“Dear Evan Hanson” truly misses the mark

Ben Platt as Evan Hansen in "Dear Evan Hansen," directed by Stephen Chbosky. (Photo Credit: Universal Pictures)

Evan Hansen (out gay actor Ben Platt, reprising his Broadway role) has crippling social anxiety. And fans of the Tony-winning musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” along with the curious, should approach the film version not just with great anxiety, but with actual fear, for it may soon turn to loathing. Directed by Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”), this film adaptation of the smash hit show — which opens September 24 in theatres — lacks spark.

The story, for the uninitiated, has Evan Hansen starting his first day of his senior year of high school with trepidation. (Platt is a decade older than the character he plays, and as the film progresses, he looks even older). He has no friends and a cast on his arm. (He claims he broke it falling out of a tree; clunky flashbacks illustrate this). As part of a therapy exercise, he writes letters to himself that are meant to be optimistic. However, his days go so poorly, his hopeful, upbeat tone changes and despair makes it onto the page.

“Dear Evan Hansen” has trouble with tone too. The musical numbers are presented in ways that are flat and uninspiring. In the opening number, Chbosky tries to mimic Evan’s agitated, hyperverbal quality, and it is more distracting than effective. Platt often performs in a hesitant voice, signaling Evan’s lack of confidence, which is appropriate, but it becomes grating. Some of the film’s early songs are quite catchy — the music and lyrics are by Philly native Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — but the dancing that accompanies them feels clumsy. When Evan and Connor (Colton Ryan) are seen playing Dance Dance Revolution, the choreography is downright pedestrian. For an opened-up musical, “Dear Evan Hansen” feels remarkably stage-bound. 

This is a shame because the musical has a good, albeit familiar, message about being one’s self, the importance of connecting with others like you, and even choosing one’s family. These themes resonate especially well with the LGBTQ community. But the film cudgels viewers with didactic messages, and the songs, which should be empowering, are presented with little enthusiasm. Several characters often just sing in a room. A downbeat musical is fine, but this film is disheartening because it is just bland and dull and 137 minutes long.

The drama centers around a letter to himself that Evan prints out that his classmate Connor takes. The two teens are both are outsiders — Connor is teased for painting his nails and has anger issues — but their tenuous bond is severed as quickly as it was formed after Connor commits suicide. His parents, Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino), find the letter Evan wrote to himself, thinking it was Connor’s suicide note. However, Evan is too afraid to disabuse them of this mistake, so he lies about their false friendship, embellishing it further so as not to hurt Connor’s grieving parents, or sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), whom Evan secretly loves. 

The film focuses on Evan’s lie snowballing, his becoming a surrogate child to Cynthia and Larry, and eventually coupling up with Zoe. Evan even uses his fabricated friendship with Connor as a way to telling Zoe what he thinks and feels about her. But it comes across as creepy, not sincere, and Platt plays Evan as precious, which does not sell it. Maybe Platt has performed the role too often, but he seems to be trying too hard here. It is exhausting for him and off-putting for viewers.

“Dear Evan Hansen” does have a good idea in the concept of knowing yourself through others, and when it touches on that — Evan connects with Alana (Amandla Stenberg), the student body president who, like Evan, takes anti-anxiety medication — it hits a chord. (Her song, “The Anonymous Ones” is new for the film.) But Chbosky’s approach is less successful when a speech Evan gives at a memorial service for Connor goes viral. Awkwardly filmed, this sequence is meant to create emotion, but more likely induces eye-rolls for becoming a cliched social media montage.

Almost every musical number strives for grand emotions, practically begging audiences to feel something. But it is hard to feel anything for these characters because they never feel real. There is no tension waiting for Evan’s numerous lies to be exposed. There is no impact when his good intentions backfire. And there is no catharsis when Evan seeks redemption for his sins. The musical just lumbers along never giving viewers the chance to become invested in it.  

Evan struggles to connect with his absent mother (Julianne Moore) who in her solo, tries to emphasize to Evan that “it will get better.” It doesn’t. “Dear Evan Hansen” just goes from bad to worse once Connor exits in the first reel. It is damning with praise to acknowledge that Colton Ryan (who understudied the role on stage) is the best thing in the film. But he makes the strongest impression in his brief moments on screen. Adams, Moore and Dever give performances that feel as strained as their singing. In support, Nik Dodani amuses as Jared, Evan’s gay “family friend,” who knows the truth, but he is woefully underused.

At one point, Evan says he deserves hatred for the lies he told. “Dear Evan Hansen” deserves hatred for being overlong and underwhelming. The film really should be worried about impostor syndrome rather than social anxiety.

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